I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty.
It is the summer of 1953 and Esther Greenwood, a college student, is living in New York and working at a month-long job as guest editor for a fashion magazine. As the novel opens, Esther worries about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, a husband and wife who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and sentenced to death. She also worries about the fact that she cannot enjoy her job, her new clothes, or the parties she attends, despite realizing that most girls would envy her. Esther feels numb and unmoored, and thinks there is something wrong with her. She lives in the Amazon, a women’s hotel, with the other eleven girls who work as guest editors and with upper-class girls training to work as secretaries. Esther spends most of her time with the beautiful, sarcastic Doreen, a southerner who shares Esther’s cynicism. Betsy, a wholesome girl from the Midwest, persistently offers her friendship to Esther. One day, on her way to a party organized by the magazine, Betsy ask Esther if she wants to share a cab. Esther refuses, catching a cab with Doreen instead. While their cab sits in traffic, a man approaches and persuades them to join him and some friends in a bar. The man’s name is Lenny Shepherd, and he exhibits immediate interest in Doreen. He persuades his friend Frankie to keep Esther company, but she treats Frankie coldly because he is short and she towers over him. Esther orders a vodka. She does not know much about drinks, and orders them at random, hoping to stumble on something she likes. She tells the men her name is Elly Higginbottom. Frankie leaves alone, and Esther and Doreen leave with Lenny.
Esther and Doreen go to Lenny’s apartment, which is decorated like a cowboy’s ranch. He puts on a tape of his own radio show, saying he enjoys the sound of his voice, and gives the girls drinks. He offers to call a friend for Esther, but Esther refuses. Doreen dances with Lenny while Esther watches, lonely and impassive, growing sleepy. The couple begins fighting playfully, biting one another and screaming, and Esther sees that Doreen’s breasts have slipped out of her strapless dress. Esther decides to leave. Although she is drunk, she manages to walk forty-eight blocks by five blocks home. She arrives home sober, her feet slightly swollen from the long walk. In her room, she stares out the window and feels her isolation from New York and from life in general. She takes a hot bath and feels purified. She falls asleep, only to be wakened by a drunken, semiconscious Doreen pounding on her door with the night maid. Once Esther opens the door, the maid leaves, and Doreen begins mumbling. Esther decides to leave Doreen in the hall. As she lowers her onto the carpet, Doreen vomits and passes out. Esther decides that though she will continue to spend time with and observe Doreen, “deep down” she will have “nothing at all to do with her.” She feels that, at heart, she resembles the wholesome Betsy more than she resembles Doreen. When Esther opens the door the following morning, Doreen is gone.
Esther narrates The Bell Jar in girlish, slangy prose, sounding mature and detached mainly when speaking of her own morbidity and depression. The first sentence of the novel sets the tone: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Esther feels misplaced, sad, and removed from reality. She lacks the cheery good humor that society expects of her, and that she expects of herself. She knows that most girls long to do what she is doing, and she cannot understand her own lack of enthusiasm. It is instructive to read Plath’s own letter to her mother during her stint as a guest editor in New York, for in it she presents the chipper front that Esther struggles to maintain: “At first I was disappointed at not being Fiction Ed, but now that I see how all-inclusive my work is, I love it. . . . [A]ll is relatively un-tense now, almost homey, in fact.” Plath manages to sound appropriately cheery, flexible, and grateful in this letter, just as Esther manages to pass herself off as suitably happy in front of her employer and sponsors.
Plath paints Esther as not just unhappy, but touchingly inexperienced. When Doreen says that Yale men are stupid, the easily influenced Esther instantly decides that Billy, a Yale man, suffers from stupidity. Esther knows nothing about alcohol, and says, “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.” Esther has determination that counters her inexperience, however, as she proves when she grits her teeth, looks at her street map, and manages to walk the miles back to her hotel while drunk.
The first two chapters contrast the ideal that life offers a talented and lucky girl like Esther, and her actual experiences of the world. She should feel thrilled by the social whirl of her charmed life in New York, but the death of the Rosenbergs obsesses her. The wealthy girls at her hotel should epitomize glamour, freedom, and happiness, but they seem spoiled and “bored as hell.” New York should set the stage for romantic, magical encounters with fascinating men, but Esther gets left with a short older man, and Doreen’s encounter with Lenny proves ugly and scary. Lenny plays a song that idealizes faithful love and marriage, but calls Doreen a “bitch” when she bites him, the prelude to their sexual encounter. The beautiful and confident Doreen, whom Esther idealizes, turns herself into a helpless, vomiting heap. The excitement of a big city, material success, romance, and love, get rewritten as an execution, boredom, selfishness, and brutality. Esther’s distaste for her life seems in part a reasonable response to her disillusionment at finding her dream summer lacking, but also a harbinger of her impending mental illness.
In the first chapter, the narrator mentions in an aside that she now has a baby. Although we never hear about the baby or Esther’s adult life again, this remark tells us that when she narrates them, Esther is likely a few years removed from the experiences the novel describes.